Learning to serve the poor

When I was in college I was fortunate to serve as Mission Intern at a big-steeple downtown church. When people came to the door seeking financial support, I was their liaison with the church. I had afternoon office hours and a monthly budget – I always exceeded both. Each month my supervisor would meet with me, show me the budget and how much I had given away, point out the overage and grimace in a way that expressed compassionately, “This can’t happen next month.” “I know,” I’d smile back, both of us recognizing that it probably would, and it did. I also coordinated the church’s running of a Saturday Soup kitchen, using the model known as Second Helpings – where restaurant food is collected, deep frozen, and reserved to those in need. A small group of us from a campus ministry, full of the idealism and indefatigable spirit of the young, cornered the senior pastor of the above mentioned church and said, “We’re going to start a soup kitchen, and we’d love it if you all help.” Without missing a beat the pastor responded, “We’ll do it at our place!” and sure enough, over time that’s exactly what happened.

These experiences, along with time spent as a volunteer coordinator for a Habitat for Humanity chapter, left me frustrated. I kept feeling like we were putting on band-aids, doing triage, but not helping people to address their foundational issues that put and kept them in need of help. I wrote my senior thesis on “The Socialization of the Homeless: A Call for Change” wherein I argued that the homeless in general, and the poor more broadly considered, need more than for someone to hand them resources; they (like all of us) need to participate in a community of support where transformation can occur and inner capacities can be discovered and developed to their fullest capacity. This is also the argument made by Robert D. Lupton in TOXIC CHARITY: How churches and charities hurt those they help (and how to reverse it).

Dignity is a key theme for Lupton – he emphasizes maintaining and even enhancing the dignity of the poor through all policies, programs and practices intended to help alleviate poverty. This also results in heightened dignity-with-humility for those who serve – doing for is dehumanizing for those with power as well as those without. This focus on dignity then leads to numerous shifts or outright reversals. from “doing for” to “doing with”; from focus on need to focus on relationship; from emergency assistance to development assistance; from focus on meeting our needs to meeting the needs of those being served; from “charity to parity”; from “going on tourist mission trips” that displace local labor and leave little long term change to sending skilled community developers; from food pantry to food coop; from gentrification to re-neighboring; from “experts” leading to community leaders leading with “experts” (i.e. people with knowledge, skills, resources and networks) serving in support capacities. All of these shifts result in heightened dignity for all involved.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions”, a phrase oft used in literature and perhaps originating with Bernard of Clairvaux, certainly applies in this present context. Churches and charities (and governments and individuals) mean well. We need to look at the unintended consequences of our actions before we take them. We need to act in partnership and community with those being served. We need to develop opportunities for reciprocity wherever possible. We need to build on strengths while filling asset gaps.

I am also now fortunate to serve in a community where some people understand these premises and are seeking to develop community awareness while enacting policy and developing program. We have much to learn. Jesus called the adults around him to learn from the children; I think a parallel principle applies here – the poor have much to teach those who would want to help them. Needing help does not make one helpless – meeting needs unilaterally does.

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